Danville Chadbourne in his studio. Photo by David S. Rubin.

One of San Antonio’s most accomplished and prolific artists, Danville Chadbourne is currently exhibiting recent works on paper at REM Gallery in Tobin Hill. The exhibition will be on view through April 29 and comes on the heels of a retrospective of the artist’s ceramic vessels, which was organized by the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts and shown recently in the galleries at SAY Sí, our city’s celebrated arts education venue for high school youth.

Over the past decade, Chadbourne has also had retrospectives of different bodies of work at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum and Bihl Haus Arts. Starting May 14, he will be exhibiting recent work at the Rockport Center for the Arts and in 2017, he will open a retrospective of small-scale wood sculpture at the Martin Museum of Art at Baylor University in Waco.

A practicing artist for four decades, Chadbourne earned his BFA in 1971 from Sam Houston State University and his MFA in 1973 from Texas Tech University. Although he started out as a student of painting, drawing, and literature, his course was altered dramatically when he took ceramics classes as an undergraduate. While making his first clay objects, he found himself attracted to the cyclical nature of the medium, in that clay is actually decomposed granite that has been reconstituted as a soft material that, when shaped and then fired in a kiln, is turned back into stone.

During the same period, he was looking at images of Stonehenge and other Megalithic monuments, so he assigned his earliest ceramic sculptures the moniker of  “handmade rocks.” Yet, in spite of their titles, these objects look nothing like natural rock formations, as their rounded contours and subtly multicolored glazed surfaces are characteristic of biomorphic sculpture and painting, and tiny holes in the tops reveal the objects to be hollow inside.

For Chadbourne, such contradictory information is in fact key to what gives an object its staying power. Through the creation of artworks that seem paradoxical, a skill that he has honed and mastered over the years and shares in common with other artists of his generation such as Gary Schafter and Julie Speed, Chadbourne leaves the interpretive decoding to the viewer.  His particular forte, in this regard, is to create convincingly believable objects, thereby making it all the more tempting for viewers to speculate about a work’s history, meaning, and purpose.

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Recalling the biomorphic sculptures of Surrealists such as Jean Arp or Isamu Noguchi, Chadbourne’s early outdoor stoneware sculptures were conceptualized as markers, that is, as objects that appear to have been placed in a deliberate location as part of some primordial ritual or system.

Inspired by Japanese Zen Gardens, which are sometimes interpreted as symbolizing the path of a metaphysical journey, Chadbourne’s Occurrence in the Path of Ambition (1976) is composed of two biomorphic entities shown encountering one another in an outdoor setting; the title alludes appropriately to a moment along life’s journey.

In a subsequent outdoor work, the stoneware biomorphs take the form of personages who wear sausage-like collars.  Grouped as a triad engaged in some kind of conversation, the figures suggest prehistoric deities as much as they do extraterrestrial aliens. The playful spirit of these sculptures is echoed in their oxymoronic title, The Dark Age of Enlightenment (dark is the opposite of light).  Chadbourne considers his titles to be poems involving contradiction.

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In the early 1980s, Chadbourne constructed a number of sculptural meditations on ancient monuments by stacking and balancing individual units made from a variety of materials, including earthenware and painted scraps of wood. Although they were designed to look unstable, these sculptures are actually very sturdy, with the parts seamlessly pinned together. A variation of an archway, The Dark Age of Reason (1982) enshrines the sausage form as its lintel, while representing a non-enterable passageway, an idea suggested by the impractically close spacing of the columns.

A similar tenuousness can be observed in the rectangular block that rests atop the lintel in The Suspension of Consciousness (1983-85), which looks as if it might topple. It too, of course, is secured by pins.  One of three sculptures that suggest barriers or road blocks, this work combines earthenware with a found wooden object. Working with wood was a catalyst, in fact, for the artist’s evolution as a painter.

Painting would gradually become prominent in both Chadbourne’s wood reliefs and his ceramics.  For one of his earlier series of reliefs, he painted found wooden sticks in a variety of colors and patterns, and then attached them to hang suspended from mixed media wall mounted structures. Along with dotted markings in the wooden support, the rainbow pattern in The Astute Philosophy of Indifference (1983-87) suggests that the object may have symbolic or magical meaning, and that it may have been used as a device in a ritual.

In The Great Equivocal Truth (1988-89), the paint application has been layered and scraped to yield the appearance of an aged relic, while the imagery is composed of universal geometric shapes, a cross and a checkerboard.  As Chadbourne made this painting, the concept guiding him was the idea that there are multiple solutions to any single problem, which in this case is how to create a pattern using four squares (the checkerboard section at the center and the green squares in the corners).

This approach, of course, was introduced into contemporary art practice in the 1960s by the conceptual art pioneer Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), whose compositions can take any shape or form, as long as they adhere to a specified set of rules.

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By the 1990s, Chadbourne found himself moving freely among mediums, while expanding upon earlier ideas with increased complexity. With works such as The Curious Meeting of Three Identities (1991-92), Chadbourne continued his exploration of cruciform imagery, broadened the range of his found objects, and compounded the layering of potential meanings within an individual art work.

Initially conceived as conceptual portraits of the artist, his wife, and his son, this mixed-media triptych employs a tripartite format long associated with altars, a symbol often equated with spirituality, and fetishistic objects, all of which lend a ritualistic context to the work. In The Poetry of Accidental Order (1993), Chadbourne revisited the “handmade rock” form that he introduced during his student years, giving it new vitality and meaning by painting it in bold polychromatic stripes that appear purposeful, as either decoration or something symbolic.

Sympathetic Beliefs - Spiritual Equilibrium, 1998-2001, acrylic and ink on wood, rocks . Image Courtesy of David S. Rubin
Sympathetic Beliefs – Spiritual Equilibrium, 1998-2001, acrylic and ink on wood, rocks . Image Courtesy of David S. Rubin

In addition to making artificial “rocks,” Chadbourne has been collecting real rocks for years and, in 2000, he began using them in an ongoing series called “Sympathetic Beliefs.” In each work, a sequence of found rocks is mounted atop a wooden shelf that the artist has adorned with painted imagery that suggests a ritualistic function.

In Sympathetic Beliefs – Spiritual Equilibrium (1998-2001), a ceremonial context is implied by the altar-like presentation, with each rock carefully positioned like an object of worship over a colorful mound shape that can be interpreted as either a temple or a passageway into a mystical space. In choosing a series of different colors, Chadbourne takes a holistic approach to spirituality, suggesting that all roads to enlightenment are equally valid (an idea that is reiterated in the title).  

Meditative Device - The Artifice of Chance, 2007-08, acrylic and ink on wood, metal, Museum of the Southwest, Midland, Texas. Image Courtesy of David S. Rubin
Meditative Device – The Artifice of Chance, 2007-08, acrylic and ink on wood, metal, Museum of the Southwest, Midland, Texas. Image Courtesy of David S. Rubin

Another of the artist’s interests has to do with numerical systems and chance. Taking his cues once again from Jean Arp, who in his Dadaist phase made collages “according to the laws of chance” by randomly dropping bits of paper onto a larger sheet, Chadbourne employed a similar process in works like Meditative Device – The Artifice of Chance (2007-08).

Limiting himself to just seven colors and working from right to left, the artist determined the color of each square by pulling a color chip from a bowl, like drawing tickets in a lottery. As in Arp’s methodology, final adjustments were made according to aesthetic impulses once the overall composition has been randomly determined.

In his current show at REM Gallery, Chadbourne is exhibiting recent works on paper and a few small sculptures. What distinguishes the paper works from typical examples of the medium, however, is that, even here, Chadbourne ritualizes them by affixing his meticulously rendered images on paper to stucco-covered panels, giving them the appearance and weight of ancient scrolls or tablets. Such an approach is strikingly well suited to the imagery depicted in Revelatory Accretion (2011-15), where a blue totem emits a dazzling aura of spiritual light and energy.

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Employment of the totem as a symbol for universal spiritual expression has also been a recurring motif in Chadbourne’s outdoor sculptures for a number of years. Devoid of any specific cultural references, the stacked stoneware in Silent Marker Along a Tortured Path (2002-03) speaks forcefully about growth, strength, and endurance.

A powerful work that would seem very much at home on the grounds of any of our local museums, this dynamic sculpture so eloquently celebrates the human spirit, while affirming the believability of something larger than life as we know it.


Top Image: Danville Chadbourne in his studio. Photo by David S. Rubin.

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David S. Rubin is an independent curator, writer, and artist. He has been active in contemporary art for 40 years and has held curatorial posts at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans; MOCA Cleveland;...